Augustus John OM


1916 and 1920

Not on display

Augustus John OM 1878–1961
Oil paint on 3 canvases
Support: 2750 × 11900 mm
Presented by Sir Edmund Davis 1917

Display caption

This is the largest mural painting Augustus John produced. He began work on it, without any commission, when he was staying in Galway City on the west coast of Ireland, in 1915. He hoped to make ‘a vast picture synthesizing all that’s fine and characteristic in Galway City – a grand marshalling of the elements’.

This was during the war, just before the Irish uprising, and the issue of home rule was often in the newspapers. John’s view suggests a self-sufficient and independent Ireland, but not a modern one.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 114 1/2×472 1/2 (291×1200).
Presented by Sir Edmund Davis 1917.
Exh: Arts and Crafts Society, R.A., 1916 (541).
Lit: James Laver, Portraits in Oil and Vinegar, 1925, p.63; Rothenstein, 1944, p.9, repr. pl.76 (detail: central panel); John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Sickert to Smith, 1952, p.184; John, 1952, pp.92–3.
Repr: Bertram, 1923, pl.9; Studio, CI, 1931, p.87 (detail: left and central panels).

‘Galway’ was commissioned for the Arts and Crafts Society exhibition at Burlington House in 1916. Ireland fascinated John and Galway especially excited him. His impressions of this part of the country can be read in Chiaroscuro, which contains an almost perfect verbal description of this picture. In a ‘Fragment of Autobiography’ John wrote: ‘I found the old port rich in motives for a painter.... Back in England I did an immense cartoon, which summarized some aspects of it, and many drawings recorded impressions of its scene. If they haven't improved the place altogether I may go back yet. There must surely be a shawl or two left’ (Horizon, IV, 1941, p.292). The central motif of bare-footed women with shawls on their heads greatly interested John, and two examples of the drawings referred to in the passage quoted above can be seen in the Davies Bequest, National Museum of Wales. They are ‘Galway Peasants’ and ‘Donegal Shawls’.

Although Sir John Rothenstein has recorded that John told him that he had painted the cartoon in a single week (1944, loc. cit., and 1952, loc. cit.) the composition had evidently occupied him for a number of years. Two large cartoons for ‘Galway’, though differing somewhat in detail, were included in the second sale of Drawings and Paintings from the Studio of the late Augustus John at Christie's, 21 June 1963 (118 and 119, repr.), dated in the catalogue as c. 1908 and 1910 respectively. A drawing for the left-hand group of ‘Galway’ dated 1907 (?) or 1917 is reproduced in Bertram, 1923, pl.31, as ‘Bank Holiday’ (as well as a group of ‘Galway Girls’, pl.33), and another variant of the scene round a table is reproduced in Browse, 1941, pl.50, as ‘Bank Holiday, West Wales’. John had paid a number of visits to both Wales and Ireland during the decade before he painted N03210.

In 1920 the artist was given permission to retouch the work and in 1948 he consented to have the canvas relined as the picture was in a bad condition; the canvas was divided into three parts and is now on three separate stretchers.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I


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